Eliot Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

T. S. Eliot, in collaboration with fellow American poet and editor Ezra Pound, published a new kind of collage poem composed of fragments from many languages and mythologies.

Summary of Event

Between the end of the nineteenth century, when Edwardian style dominated English cultural life, and the end of World War I, after millions of young Englishmen had died in the horribly bloody conflicts of no-man’s land, a radically new artistic style emerged. Generally known as modernism, this new direction in the arts took its cue from such artists as the Italian Futurists (a group that embraced the new technology) and the French Symbolists (especially Paul Valéry and Jules Laforgue). Modernism also drew inspiration from such sources as the new architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States and the new technology as represented by the American entrepreneur Henry Ford. Waste Land, The (Eliot) Poetry;The Waste Land (Eliot)[Waste Land] [kw]Eliot Publishes The Waste Land (1922) [kw]Publishes The Waste Land, Eliot (1922) [kw]Waste Land, Eliot Publishes The (1922) Waste Land, The (Eliot) Poetry;The Waste Land (Eliot)[Waste Land] [g]England;1922: Eliot Publishes The Waste Land[05500] [c]Literature;1922: Eliot Publishes The Waste Land[05500] Eliot, T. S. Pound, Ezra

Skyscrapers were going up in New York, jazz was being played in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, and Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were inventing cubism in their Parisian studios. The world was suddenly moving to new rhythms and seeing itself in terms of new imagery. Literary practitioners were among the last to absorb this radically new way of making art, perhaps owing to the innately conservative nature of language itself. Literary change occurred quickly during this period, however, as English writers in particular began to discover the French Symbolists and Asian poetry, especially the haiku of the Japanese. Out of this preoccupation with imagery of the kind favored in much Asian poetry, a literary school known as Imagism Imagist movement Literature;Imagist movement emerged in and around London.

The most important Imagist was a young American poet named Ezra Pound, who had taken upon himself the formidable task of changing the whole direction of poetry in the English language. A brilliant linguist and radical thinker, Pound drew on all his cultural resources, as well as his irrepressible energy, to put the Imagist movement at the center of the literary map. He became the foreign editor for a number of American literary magazines, most important of which was Poetry, Poetry (magazine) founded in Chicago in 1912. It was at Pound’s insistence, for example, that the first American publication of poems by Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot occurred. Had Pound not been on the scene, the literary life of London—and all of the English-speaking world—would have been vastly different.

T. S. Eliot had arrived in London in the summer of 1914 after his attempts to study at Marburg, Germany, had been cut short by the outbreak of World War I. Eliot had already studied languages and philosophy at Harvard University and at the Sorbonne. A remarkably gifted student, Eliot was the scion of a distinguished American family. His grandfather had founded Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (where Eliot grew up), and the family traced its line all the way back to the Mayflower. Eliot had been reading and translating French poetry on his own and had been translating the works of Dante and the classical Greek and Roman poets. At that point in his life, however, Eliot imagined himself having a career as a professional philosopher. Poetry was only a sideline for him, although an important one.

Once in London, Eliot quickly joined a literary circle that included the Bloomsbury Group Bloomsbury Group of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as well as such writers as Stephen Spender, Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis, William Butler Yeats, and the ubiquitous Pound. Eliot also fell under the spell of Vivien Haigh-Wood, Haigh-Wood, Vivien a vivacious, high-strung, and outspoken young woman who was strikingly different from the socialites and debutantes Eliot had known in Boston and Cambridge.

Eliot married Vivien in 1915, the same year that his first important poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The" (Eliot)[Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock] appeared in the pages of Poetry. Within months of their marriage, Eliot realized that he had made a tragic mistake. Vivien had an affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and her physical condition, aggravated by bouts of neuralgia and painful menstrual cycles, deteriorated steadily. The couple’s married life, carried on in a series of cramped and dingy London flats and drafty country cottages, took its toll on both partners. Eliot and his wife were dependent on a whole stable of London specialists, and the young poet was forced to moonlight at various teaching and editorial jobs to supplement his meager salary as a clerk in the Foreign Correspondence Department of Lloyd’s Bank.

Although some critics have dismissed any claims of autobiographical details in The Waste Land, it stretches credibility to assume that Eliot’s relationship with Vivien does not account, in some way, for the many frustrating and doomed relationships featured in the poem. When Eliot began working on The Waste Land in late January or early February of 1921, his own health and that of Vivien were seriously impaired. In addition to help from London doctors and a strict dietary regimen, Vivien had recourse to a French clinic outside Paris. Eliot continued writing during the whole period, although the emerging poem, which he called “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” was a sprawling affair with many quotations from the London music halls and off-color snippets from World War I songs. In November, 1921, Eliot’s health had deteriorated to the point that he entered a psychiatric clinic in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he gained momentary peace. He completed whole sections of the poem in Lausanne.

Eliot returned to London in the early months of 1922, and the tragic pattern of his life continued in full force. By this time, he had no idea what to do with the poem, which had grown in length to more than one thousand lines. In sheer desperation, he turned the typescript over to Ezra Pound, who instantly recognized its brilliance—and its purple passages. Pound proceeded to remove all the extraneous material, preserving only those passages in which he heard Eliot’s distinctive voice and the passages in which Eliot had borrowed lines or phrases from foreign texts (in Greek, Latin, French, German, or Sanskrit).

Eliot agreed completely with Pound’s emendations, dedicated the poem to him, and first published it in the pages of a new literary magazine he was editing, Criterion, in October of 1922. In November, the poem made its first American appearance in the pages of The Dial magazine, and in December, The Waste Land was published in book form by Liveright Publishers in New York. Finally, in September, 1923, Hogarth Press, owned by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, brought out a separate English edition of the work.

Significance

T. S. Eliot was certainly conversant with the intrinsic difficulties of his masterwork. In fact, for the Liveright and Hogarth editions, he prepared a special set of scholarly notes to help guide perplexed readers and curious critics. Those notes, by themselves, have accounted for the spilling of oceans of critical ink, as scholars have struggled to offer a coherent theory of this five-part poem numbering 434 lines. It is no exaggeration to say that the shelves of an impressive library could easily be filled with materials written about Eliot and The Waste Land. Major critics have depended on this work to make their mark in the world of academe, as even a cursory glance at the bibliography of Eliot and The Waste Land would suggest. A few notable titles in this connection include such books as F. R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), F. O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1935), Northrop Frye’s T. S. Eliot (1963), George Williamson’s A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot (1966), and Gover Smith’s T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays (1974) and The Waste Land (1984).

The point here is that The Waste Land has functioned as a kind of critical benchmark for all modern poetry and for the criticism that poetry engendered. The Waste Land simply occupies a unique and privileged place in the landscape of twentieth century poetry. The so-called New Criticism New Criticism —with its emphases on irony, allusion, and formalism—would be unthinkable without Eliot and The Waste Land, the poem that most perfectly justifies and exemplifies the New Criticism’s ideals.

Of course, when the poem first appeared, it rocked the literary establishment. Absolutely no one was prepared for the linguistic and thematic complexity of the poem. Its themes of sexual boredom, sterility, loss of faith, and the destruction of civilization, however, appealed instantly to a generation that had seen the virtual bankruptcy of European civilization and the horrors of World War I. With its collage of bits and pieces on the printed page, the poem spoke eloquently and convincingly about the nature of loss and pain in twentieth century life. College undergraduates memorized the poem, and literary people quoted it constantly, a detail recorded by the novelist Evelyn Waugh in his fictional chronicle of the period, Brideshead Revisited (1945).

In the United States, The Waste Land had a profound and immediate effect on the literary imaginations of the most important writers of the period. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fitzgerald, F. Scott pivotal novel The Great Gatsby (1925) Great Gatsby, The (Fitzgerald, F. S.) depended significantly on the presence of a wasteland of ashes that defined and enclosed the metropolis of New York. Like Eliot, Fitzgerald delineated a world where true love was inevitably frustrated and sexual corruption was commonplace. Other Americans, including the poet Hart Crane, Crane, Hart reacted violently against Eliot and tried to write optimistic poetry. In fact, Crane’s The Bridge (1930) Bridge, The (Crane) failed precisely because he could not find a myth to justify America, even though he tried valiantly and, interestingly, adopted Eliot’s trademark techniques of literary collage and allusion. Eliot did, however, succeed in planting the idea of the long poem in the minds of American poets. In addition to Crane’s The Bridge, The Waste Land undoubtedly helped to inspire William Carlos Williams’s four-volume epic Paterson (1946-1958) and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1960).

A long work by British poet W. H. Auden, Auden, W. H. For the Time Being (1944), For the Time Being (Auden) with its depiction of a bleak and distorted landscape and its unremittingly ironic posture, also owed something to Eliot’s work. This same kind of wasteland, perhaps the dominant archetype of twentieth century literature, provided the backdrop for Samuel Beckett’s Beckett, Samuel En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). Waiting for Godot (Beckett) Beckett’s famous characters, Vladimir and Estragon, would have been absolutely at home in the zombie-world Eliot created in The Waste Land. In like manner, Eliot’s vision of London as a place where sexual corruption provided a clue to larger and more pervasive spiritual breakdowns can be detected rather obviously in a novel such as Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989), in which love, art, money, and sex are transmuted into a complicated calculus of betrayal.

The Waste Land touched imaginations and sensibilities precisely because its symbolic meaning provided a significant way to encode a world that, largely, had failed to make much sense. There is great irony in the fact that one of the most pessimistic works of the century may have preserved a small measure of the optimism that Eliot’s audience desperately needed. Knowledge is indeed power, and The Waste Land, for all its darkness, clearly empowered its readers in a way that set it apart from all other poems of the century. Waste Land, The (Eliot) Poetry;The Waste Land (Eliot)[Waste Land]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Lucid and articulate account of Eliot’s life reads like a well-crafted novel. Offers fine analysis of Eliot’s complex sexual attitudes and his relationships with women, especially Vivien. Appropriate for Eliot specialists and nonspecialists alike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooker, H. Ralph, and Mary Ann Bentley. Reading “The Waste Land”: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. Uniquely successful scholarly collaboration offers a part-by-part analysis of the poem and places it within the context of modernism and its inherent difficulties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Edited by Michael North. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Presents the text of the poem as it appeared in its first American edition, followed by Eliot’s notes. Also includes information on the work’s publication history and reprints reviews and essays on the poem by a wide variety of authors. Features a chronology and select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenner, Hugh, ed. T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Includes essays by R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, William Empson, and Denis Donoghue, but readers will want to focus on F. R. Leavis’s “The Waste Land” and George Morris’s “Marie, Marie, Hold on Tight.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knoll, Robert E., ed. Storm over “The Waste Land.” Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1964. A collection of some of the famous articles that have damned or praised The Waste Land. The included essays force the reader to grapple with the important aesthetic issues raised by the poem, especially the question of its fragmentary structure. Contains notable essays by Delmore Schwartz and Karl Shapiro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, James E., Jr. T. S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005. Examines the early years of Eliot’s life—through 1922, when The Waste Land was published—and argues that Eliot’s poetry reflects his personal experiences, despite his own statements to the contrary. Emphasizes Eliot’s American roots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rainey, Lawrence. Revisiting “The Waste Land.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Seeks to shed new light on the poem by exploring how Eliot composed it and by challenging long-prevailing interpretations of the work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, George. A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis. 1953. Reprint. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998. Brings invaluable clarity and common sense to Eliot’s intrinsically difficult work, especially in The Waste Land, without oversimplifying. The essential point of departure for any study of the poet.

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